Let our actions be the guardians of our dreams

22 Oct. 2007

Does tourism save or destroy culture?

Since I started this trip, one question has always been on my mind: does tourism save or destroy culture?

We all know that tourism interferes in the local culture: brings points of view from all over the world; injects money into the economy; stimulate constructions; demands the presence of ATMs; stretches business hours; puts a price in handicrafts and traditional arts expressions; etc.

Therefore, a tourist destination is more likely to have the presence of global brands, but also more money to support local cuisine and arts (there wouldn't be tons of Thai food courses in Chiang Mai or daily Vietnamese traditional dance performances in Hue without travellers). In the same way, it's very probable that the life of a touristic town be less simple and less community based; however, its residents will possibly have more access to goods and comforts than before.

In the book "Once while travelling", Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler - a travel enthusiast himself - brings up some interesting points:

The First World may have exported McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hit, but we've brought back Thai, Mexican and Japanese food to balance those exports.

and's very patronising for those of us in the developed world to think people should maintain a simples life to please us: 'It was so nice when you didn't have electricity and cars and motorcycles and life was simple.' I've yet to see a Third World village that didn't rejoice when electricity arrived or cheer when they could enjoy motorcycles traffic jams instead of walking to work.

I don't have an answer to the original question above. Probably tourism both saved and destroys culture. What I'm sure of is we shouldn't measure its impact just through the material gains of the visited societies, as often cars, electronics and money don't represent a better life. Perhaps a better indicator would be the tolerance and cultural understanding raised through individuals' direct contact, especially in times of fear and unjustifiable wars.

Kao San, the crowded backpackers' street in Bangkok, Thailand

Magnificent forest on the way to an Akha village in northern Laos

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